The "American system" of mass production, successfully implemented during the mid-1800s, was characterized by the large-scale manufacture of standardized products with interchangeable parts. Much different than the individualized hand craftsmanship which preceded it, this method of production required artificially-powered machine tools and simplified operations, endowing products made from machine production with a certain aesthetic—an industrial design. At first used for the manufacture of revolvers, clocks, pocket watches, and agricultural machinery, the American system eventually produced most consumer goods.
Sewing machines and typewriters were the first products consciously designed with different contexts of use in mind—an early implementation of industrial design. In order to sell his sewing machines, Isaac Singer believed that they should be ornamented when in the home in order to fit into the more decorative aesthetic of the domestic sphere; likewise, they should be plain black when found in a factory setting. Early typewriters shared the same aesthetic variations as their sewing machine counterparts, and these were two of the earliest manufactured objects influenced by the machine ethic that produced them.
A few decades later, in 1908, Henry Ford improved upon assembly line production by making an automobile, the Model T, specifically for a mass market. Ford believed in the design philosophy called "functionalism," a system also touted by architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924). Functionalism, one of the first self-conscious modern design movements, stressed that an "honest" design did not hide what an object did, a belief summed up most eloquently by Sullivan's famous phrase, "form follows function." As historian Gregory Votolato wrote, "Sullivan and Ford approached design as a means of addressing social, technical and commercial problems specific to the time and place. In its early years of development, the automobile, like the skyscraper, called for a design which would tap a huge, potential demand and which would make the most efficient use of the available technology in its production and construction." Frank Lloyd Wright (1869-1959) was a well-known proponent of the functionalist aesthetic, but designed only for an exclusive clientele. It was not until the rise of business in the 1910s and 1920s, which required the mass manufacture of office equipment and furniture, that functionalism was brought to the masses.
During the 1910s, the fine arts, especially from Europe, still remained influential in popular design, overshadowing the sheer power of machinery and industry that would prevail in the following decades. Art Nouveau, expressed most clearly in the work of Belgian designer Henry van de Velde, was based on organic forms and the insistence that production occur in small craft workshops—a reaction against the forces of machine-driven mass production. Although meant for the elite, his designs were easily and readily appropriated for the mass market. Dadaist Marcel Duchamp celebrated prosaic utilitarian objects as works of art, promoting the idea that ordinary objects should be works of art. Le Corbusier expounded Purist theories, believing that man was merely another functional object like a machine, and that objects should be made as extensions of the human body. Piet Mondrian and Gerrit Rietveld expressed the ideals of De Stijl, a movement founded in Holland in 1917. De Stijl condensed things down to their fundamental elements—basic shapes, right angles, and primary colors which could be applied as easily to furniture or paintings. Although these schools all enjoyed many followers and influenced to various degrees the design of consumer goods, the most influential on American industrial design was the Bauhaus movement, founded in Germany in 1919. Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Mies van der Rohe, among others, believed that art and technology could be unified and used to produce objects of good design and integrity.
It was not until the crash of 1929, however, that industrial design in America became professionalized and considered a valid pursuit in its own right. Many designers who were previously involved in the theater or in advertising were put into service during the Depression to find viable and useful product designs in a small yet very competitive market. These American designers were highly influenced by the Modernist aesthetic of the Bauhaus, which celebrated industrial materials, like metal and elevated machines, to works of art. In addition, they brought industrial design into the home, applying Modernist principles to appliances, furniture, and even architecture.
Walter Dorwin Teague (1883-1960) started out as a graphic designer, and began applying his skills to the three-dimensional realm during the mid-1920s. Throughout his career he designed cameras for Kodak, and became well known for improving on the designs of heavy machinery and office equipment. Raymond Loewy (1893-1986), a Frenchman who emigrated to America, became well known in the field after he redesigned the Gestetner duplicating machine, making it more functional and better looking. In 1935, Loewy improved upon the design of the Coldspot refrigerator for Sears, enclosing the cooling unit with white enameled steel, giving it chrome hardware, and adding features with the needs of the user in mind: it could accommodate different-sized containers, had a semi-automatic defroster, and came with instant-release ice cube trays.
Henry Dreyfuss (1904-1972) was originally a stage designer who opened up an interior design business in 1929. In 1937, he redesigned the telephone for Bell, giving it a low profile and combining the receiver and earpiece into one handset. It was a simple design—easy to use, easy to clean, and easy to manufacture. Dreyfuss was particularly interested in the interaction between humans and the objects around them. He spent much of his time studying the human body and was the first true proponent of ergonomics, best expressed in his books, Designing for People (1955) and The Measure of Man (1961).
Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958), yet another stage designer, put his talents to work designing more substantial objects like airplanes. Although he did not invent streamlining, he did democratize it. Popular between 1927 and the beginning of World War II, streamlining was characterized by smooth metal surfaces, long, sweeping, horizontal curves, rounded edges, and the elimination of extraneous detail. It was based on scientific principles and produced shapes with the least resistance in water and air. Streamlining was a wildly popular design aesthetic that appeared in objects from railroads and camping trailers to toasters and juicers and symbolized speed, efficiency, and a forward-looking mentality that was much needed during the Depression years. Examples of streamlining included the Boeing 247 of 1933, the Douglas DC1 (an all metal structure with an aluminum skin), and Carl Breer's 1934 Chrysler "Airflow."
Industrial design styles did not change much during the decades immediately following World War II. Sullivan's "form follows function" credo had become the accepted canon in the design world. The exceptions to the functionalist design aesthetic appeared in the automobile industry. The Cadillacs and Buicks of the 1950s and early 1960s were known for their outlandish colors—pink, turquoise, yellow—and for their exuberant body styles, complete with jutting "tailfins" that resembled something from outer space.
As an outgrowth of the celebration of post-War material abundance and American primacy in the world, most American homes were filled with products of American design. By the mid-1960s, this began to change—the liberal culture was becoming more tolerant of design variations, and other countries began to contribute their taste cultures to the American public. Slim-line Bang and Olufsen stereos, from Denmark, and the more militaristic Japanese versions began appearing in the dens of American audiophiles. Italian Olivetti typewriters appeared alongside IBM (International Business Machines) Selectrics in the corporate office. Braun coffee makers from Germany showed up in progressive kitchens.
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, technology put toward the miniaturization of electronic equipment radically changed Americans' material universe. While Dreyfuss, Teague, Bel Geddes, and the other modernists could place functional objects in attractive packages, they could not get rid of their bulk. The impact of computers was revolutionary, both in terms of how people communicated and in the nature of design itself. Computers used on the production line allowed for more flexibility, shorter production runs, and therefore more differentiation in design—a return to the nature of production 100 years earlier. In addition, smaller parts like microchips allowed the products themselves to become smaller, more portable, and more personal, symbolizing the increasing interpersonal disconnectedness and self-interest pervading the culture at the end of the twentieth century. Watches with LED (Liquid Electronic Display) crystals threatened to make analogue time-telling obsolete; it did not, but did create a new meaning for analogue faces which hearkened back to a nostalgic past. Microcomponents also meant that electronic gadgets became very toy-like: the "mouse" used with the Macintosh computer was only one example. Indeed, the triumph of microprocessing made machines both personalized and intimate—people often wore them on their bodies. The Sony Walkman was a portable stereo that one strapped on one's belt or wore around the neck; similarly, people carried pocket calculators, beepers, cellular telephones, and even laptop computers. The influence of microcomputers on design, what historian Peter Dormer called "the electronic technologist's great gift to designers" was "the means to create working icons of personal freedom through greatly enhanced power and portability."
At the same time microprocessing was allowing objects to become smaller, thinner, and more portable, postmodern design also changed the outward appearance of industrially-produced objects. Architect Robert Venturi (1925—) became one of the first American proponents of postmodern design with his 1972 book Learning From Las Vegas. Formally established in Italy in 1981 and called "Memphis," the school of postmodernism embraced exuberant styles and colors. Memphis, referring to both Elvis and Egypt, reacted against the cultural supremacy assumed by modern design, which its proponents saw as a constant restatement of the power of technology and the triumph of large American corporations. In contrast, postmodern design attempted to be more egalitarian, incorporating stylistic elements from both high and low art—from marble to formica, from Greek columns to polka dots. Michael Graves (1934—) was another American architect and designer who embraced the postmodern aesthetic, and began designing toasters, picture frames, and other housewares for a middlebrow department store chain near the end of the 1990s, indicating a "trending downward" of taste, and selling what had formerly been high style to the masses. The appearance of postmodernism to some, however, marked the triumph of surface over substance. Influenced more by the information than the industrial age, postmodernism perhaps signaled the end of the reign of industrial design and the beginning of a new design ethic based on and in the hyperreality of cyberspace rather than the materiality of tangible objects.
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